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Weekly Doses of Pop-up Psych

We all make cringey mistakes and deserve to move on, rather than feel confused or regretful after an icky social situation. Each week, I will dissect a murky social, life cycle, or pop culture topic to help you understand, learn, and move on. As a former academic, I am a super-picky consumer of research (and you should be too) as well as the content I create and share, so those new solutions, data and/or additional resources have certainly met my approval.

The Short and Sweet Guide to Reference Letters

We all need to check in with ourselves and evaluate where we are at with accomplishing our goals. Some goals require a reference letter, so people you haven’t heard from in awhile might crawl out of the woodwork to hit you up for one.


I have been writing reference letters for almost 30 years. I have written them for colleagues, students, and friends. I have a vast, multi-faceted career and a huge network, so I have been a reference for jobs, promotions, schools (certifications, vocational, bachelors, masters, and doctorates), internships, scholarships, awards, tenure, fellow status, probation, parole, and other opportunities. Some letters will be longer than others, like tenure, fellow status, and awards, but most will follow the same format.


Reference Letter Etiquette 


There are some unspoken dos and don’ts to the dynamics of being a reference for both the candidate and the source. 


When you are the candidate asking for a reference


References should be people who can say something nice about you and your work, like educators, coaches, directors, bosses, colleagues, employees, etc. Give your reference as much as notice as possible. Everyone is busy and it takes time to write a letter and complete the online submission process.  


Ask them in advance, so they are not blindsided when someone contacts them on your behalf. Always have back-ups, in case people say no. Don’t take it personally when people say no, since it could always be a time issue.


If they say yes, write them a note of thanks and keep them posted on whether or not you got the opportunity. There is nothing worse then taking the time to be someone’s reference only to be ghosted about the outcome.


When to say YES to being a reference


You should obviously like and know the candidate personally enough to tell a story about that to emphasize a point. Only provide positive references-karma comes back! Ask for their resume or curriculum vita so you know everything on their professional journey.


When not say NO to being a reference 


Recently, a colleague who I knew “on paper” reached out to ask for a reference and sent their curriculum vita and copies of their publications. I knew the candidate because I accepted one of their articles years ago when I was a journal editor, but would not recognize them if they showed up on my front porch. Thus, it was a hard “no” when they asked me for a reference letter; especially since I didn’t know them enough to muster up a personal story/example.

Reference Letter Logistics


The reference might be submitted through an online submission portal with questions that require rated responses (rate from 1-5, how much do you recommend this candidate?) and place to upload a letter. 


The letter should have:


  • Your letterhead or logo at the top to represent your organization or brand.

  • Three paragraphs (see below).

  • Format of a business letter template found in Google Docs or Word.

  • Converted to PDF so you can include an electronic signature.

  • Limited or stretched to 1-2 pages, unless it’s supposed to be extremely detailed.

  • A sentence at the end that states, please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or would like more information about the candidate.

  • Your name, title, and contact information at the bottom.


First Paragraph


After stating your recommendation, this paragraph tells the reader the background of why you are writing the letter. Then, you get into who you are, how you know the candidate, and the context (e.g., former employee), so the reader understands your perspective. 

  • Begin with I strongly recommend (candidate’s name) for the (opportunity they are applying for).

  • How long you have known the candidate.

  • Your relationship with the candidate.

  • Context/how you know the candidate.


Second Paragraph


This is when you really sell the candidate.  Go heavy on the adjectives and provide a personal story. 

  • Description of candidate.

  • Why they should get that opportunity.

  • Personal story that highlights why they are a fit for the opportunity.


Third Paragraph


This is the final paragraph that reinforces why the candidate is a fit and should be considered for the opportunity.

  • Brief summary of why candidate is a fit for the opportunity.

  • Something strong and positive about opportunity and organization itself.

  • Explain how the opportunity is the next and logical step in candidate’s career journey.


Who can serve as your references?


Hi, Beautiful Readers! Thank you for reading this! I'm Dr. Joanne Broder, Media Psychologist, Author, and Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Please consider me to help you write your memoir, blogs, speeches, e-books, as well as coach you on your dissertation or thesis.  Click here so we can connect!

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